Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Years of dedication lead to breakout senior campaign for Zack LaRue

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(Alex Lindsay/Daily Collegian)

(Alex Lindsay/Daily Collegian)

Zack LaRue doesn’t think very long when asked to recall his most meaningful memory in a Massachusetts hockey uniform.

Despite playing in 97 career games, the senior has one recollection that stands above all others.

“My one memory would be my sophomore year scoring a goal against Maine,” LaRue said without hesitation.

On Feb. 23, 2013, the Minutemen hosted the Black Bears in a late-season matchup. In attendance among the 3,127 fans at the Mullins Center was LaRue’s grandmother, who had been recently diagnosed with cancer.

“The doctor told her she could make one more trip before she passed and she decided to come watch me play hockey one more time,” LaRue said.

Inspired by her visit, LaRue clinched UMass’ 5-2 victory in the third period with the deciding goal. Tied 2-2 two minutes, 50 seconds into the final frame, LaRue started a late rally by taking advantage of a rebound opportunity in front of the net to beat Maine goalie Martin Ouelette for his second career goal.

Two years later, LaRue said he still perfectly remembers the sequence of plays leading up to the goal and looks back on the game as one of his proudest achievements.

“When I scored that goal it was just like it was meant to be,” LaRue said. “It was the best moment of my life and the best goal I’ve ever scored.”

Although recognized primarily for his work ethic instead of his point production – he has eight goals in his collegiate career – LaRue’s emotional goal against Maine is the finest example of him seizing the most out of his opportunities with the Minutemen.

Now, heading into the twilight of his UMass career, LaRue hopes to take full advantage of his final shot at postseason success with the Minutemen.

‘Guys listen to him’

Ask any of LaRue’s teammates or coaches about his contributions and the first attribute almost always brought up is his work ethic.

“He’s a hard worker,” freshman Dominic Trento said. “Work ethic is always something that you can follow. He’s always trying to do the little things to make us better and he really buys into the system of what the coaches are trying to say.”

This commitment paid off for LaRue prior to the 2014-15 season when he was named one of UMass’ alternate captains, joining fellow senior Oleg Yevenko in the role.

“It’s obviously a great honor to be named an alternate captain to this team,” LaRue said. “All the guys have bought in and they’ve helped me too. Just being named a captain is just hard work paying off for me.”

According to Minutemen coach John Micheletto, LaRue’s consistency on and off the ice during his first three seasons led to a seamless transition into his new official title.

“His leadership style was always born out of his work ethic first and foremost and he has a lot of respect from his teammates,” Micheletto said. “He keeps himself in fantastic shape and always shows up at the rink ready to work hard, so guys respect him and really like him as a person.”

Micheletto added that the biggest addition to LaRue’s leadership style this season has been his development as a more vocal presence. While Micheletto said LaRue isn’t known for delivering fiery speeches, he said that the senior’s words resonate among the team.

“Not that he’s a real rah-rah guy but when he does speak, guys listen to him,” Micheletto said.

Redshirt senior Troy Power can attest to LaRue’s evolvement as one of UMass’ leaders. Working alongside LaRue as the Minutemen’s captain for the second straight season, Power is also LaRue’s roommate and best friend.

Power described how the two immediately clicked when LaRue arrived in Amherst during Power’s sophomore season. Power added that this strong personal bond has helped them develop chemistry as UMass’ captains.

“I think we’re both very similar,” Power said. “We both strive to do things the right way in all aspects in the game.

“First and foremost, in leading by example, Zack’s always been one of the hardest working guys on the ice and in the gym. As years progressed he slowly became more vocal, especially on the ice. It’s something that guys really respond to.”

LaRue said that he fully embraces this role as a vocal leader, saying that Power has served as a great model to follow by. He added that on a young team which boasts 10 freshmen, it is important to have a strong, influential group of experienced upperclassmen.

LaRue has been at the forefront of this freshmen development as he has been regularly accompanied by first-year linemates.

Trento, one of these linemates, recalled how LaRue helped him get accustomed to the collegiate level and taught him how to deal with injury setbacks.

“When I broke my knuckles, I was getting down on myself about the fact that I wasn’t able to play,” Trento said. “We just talked about how he had his share of scratches and stuff like that and he just told me to keep battling and keep working hard and things would fall into place.

“He was pretty wise in that sense.”

Senior success

Lost among outputs like Dennis Kravchenko’s 30 points and Frank Vatrano’s 17 goals has been LaRue’s quietly impactful senior campaign.

Despite missing a month midway through the season due to illness, LaRue finished with career-highs in goals (5) and assists (4).

LaRue started the year with four points through four games. A month later on Nov. 7, LaRue had his first multi-goal game of his career with two goals in a 7-1 victory over American International College.

With more goals this season than in his past three years combined, LaRue said that confidence was key in his heightened point production.

“I know what type of player I am, I know what’s going to give me success,” LaRue said. “I’ve never been the type of player who’s worried about points.

“I’ve always been the guy who, whatever I have to do for the team, whether that’s blocking shots or throwing a hit, I want to be that guy to do it. So when I started scoring goals in there, it just kind of upped me a little bit more confidence-wise.”

Power took notice of LaRue’s more active presence on the score sheet.

“Confidence is a really funny thing,” Power said. “Do I think his skills got tremendously better from last year to this year? Not as much. Just the confidence in what he does with the puck and moving through different areas of the ice, you can just tell that he’s more comfortable.”

On a UMass roster riddled by injuries this season, especially at the forward position, LaRue said that it was satisfying to provide this scoring from the third line. He added that continuing to boast depth on the lower lines helped mitigate the Minutemen’s injury issues.

“You’re being the guy who’s probably not leaned on to score like the first line,” LaRue said. “So when you’re getting production from your lower lines, it’s something special and something that not every team has.”

One last chance

While LaRue said that he fell in love with the area around Boston during his time at UMass and wants to live in Massachusetts following graduation, he noted that he’s unsure about his future in hockey.

“If the opportunity arises to play hockey, I would love to do it,” LaRue said. “It’s cliché when people say it, but you’ve got your degree and you’ve got (hockey) so if I get the chance to play, I’d love to do that.”

LaRue acknowledged though that UMass may be his last stop in competitive hockey. If that’s the case, LaRue said that he’s ready for it.

“I know what could happen,” he said. “I’m ready to move on in my life.”

But before LaRue faces this decision, the senior has one last opportunity to lead the Minutemen to its first postseason win in six years.

Finishing the regular season at the bottom of the loaded Hockey East, UMass (10-21-2, 5-16-1 HEA) now prepares for a best-of-three series against No. 5 seed Notre Dame in the first round of the conference tournament this weekend.

While the Fighting Irish swept the Minutemen in December’s two-game series, LaRue said that he is confident UMass can make a run in the tournament. He pointed to the Minutemen’s second half improvements – in which UMass has gone 6-9-2 – as encouragement.

“I would’ve liked to have started better, but at the same time, I rather end strong,” LaRue said. “I’d be scared to play against us because when we play the way we know we can, I think we’re a pretty lethal team.”

Anthony Chiusano can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @a_chiusano24.

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